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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                        177
the impossible, to which the Wing Commander had re-
torted that nothing was impossible for men like Mere-
syev. To Alexei's surprise there were even a few lines
about the "meteorological sergeant". Kukushkin wrote
that this sergeant had bombarded him with questions so
heavily that he had been obliged to order: "About turn!
March!" Kukushkin concluded his letter by stating that
on the very first day of his return to the wing he made
two flights, that his legs were completely healed, and
that within the next few days the wing would get new
planes—"La-5's", which were to arrive soon, and about
which Andrei Degtyarenko, who had tried them out, had
said that in comparison with them the German craft of
all types were mere suitcases filled with junk.
Summer set in early. It peeped into ward forty-two
from that same poplar-tree branch, the leaves of which
had become hard and bright. They rustled impetuously
as if whispering to each other. Towards evening they
lost their brightness owing to the dust from the street.
The red catkins had long ago changed into bright green
brushes, which had now burst and a light fluff was blown
from them. At noon, the hottest part of the day, this
warm poplar fluff was blown about Moscow, flew into
the open windows of the hospital and lay in pink piles
at the doors and in the corners into which the warm
breezes had carried it.
One cool, bright, golden summer morning, Klavdia
Mikhailovna, looking very solemn, came into the ward
accompanied by an elderly man wearing steel-rimmed
spectacles tied with string and a new, stiffly starched
white smock, which, however, could not conceal the fact
that he was an old craftsman. He carried something
wrapped in a white cloth. He placed the bundle on the
floor at Meresyev's bedside and began slowly and sol-
emnly, like a conjuror, to untie it. The creak of leather
could be heard, and the pleasant, pungent, acrid smell of
tan pervaded the ward.
When the wrappings were removed a pair of new,
yellow, creaking artificial limbs, skilfully constructed and